Despite the contained setting, the film has an epic quality, as well as a romantic intensity that marks a major leap forward from Sciamma’s previous films Tomboy and Water Lillies. These were attractive but not extraordinary queer coming-of-age stories, scaled to the emotions of their young heroines: here, for the first time, her work seems fully grown.
Too often, the makers of same-sex romances feel compelled to state that questions of gender and sexuality are beside the point: aren’t we all just people? Thankfully, this is not the viewpoint of Sciamma, who approaches her subject from the inside: she and Haenel were once a couple, though they broke up before this film got under way.
It matters that Marianne and Heloise are women and not just because they belong to a time and place where a permanent relationship is not on the cards. The substance of the film is in the physicality of these two characters and the stars who play them; while Marianne is the one having her portrait painted, we’re reminded with a faint wink the two are equally available to be observed by Sciamma and by us.
Marianne is dark and Heloise fair, but the visual contrast between them goes much further. Marianne is contained, definite, with a birdlike intentness; Heloise has a fidgety quality that suggests volatility just below the surface (even her haughtiness is accompanied by a hurt, defiant stare). In a sense, the whole drama of the film is in the difference between Merlant’s thin lips and Haenel’s full ones – and in waiting for the moment that will close the gap.
These are individuals, not symbols, but ultimately Sciamma gives us room to understand their love affair as carrying “universal” meaning after all, as a dream of what might be possible between two people when society is kept at bay. (Male characters, who appear only fleetingly, serve as guardians of the waking world.)
In its directness of feeling, the film risks slipping into a modern kind of sentimentality. “Do all lovers feel like they’re inventing something?” Heloise asks, one of the more heavy-handed lines. But the film, like its characters, mingles openness and reserve; there are pockets of mystery all the way through. Formalised gestures, such as the way Heloise farewells her mother (Valeria Golino), are given a mysterious, nearly occult significance, as in the films of Jacques Rivette, whose 1991 Balzac adaptation La Belle Noiseuse was also a chronicle of the painting of a portrait, though not exactly a love story.
Crucially, even as Marianne and Heloise break with some social conventions, they depend on others – something brought home through the figure of Heloise’s maid Sophie (Luana Bajrami), hardly more than a child but sexually active with her boyfriend off-screen. Sophie is a third wheel in the story, but it wouldn’t work without her: through her accommodating presence, Marianne and Heloise establish themselves not just as lovers but as rulers of a miniature kingdom of their own.
Over the course of the film Sophie plays many roles, as a stand-in for the portrait of the title and as witness, plaything and go-between: eerie high-angle shot shows her literally running back and forth between the two adult women on the beach, while they loom over her like gigantic queens in a game of chess.